Andrea here, just back from the RWA Conference, where as you can see from the photos we posted last week, a good time was had by all. In fact, July has been quite a month for festivities. Corks started popping on the first of the month, as many of our Wenches were showered with fabulous accolades and honors—bestseller lists, Top Pick reviews, award nominations, to mention just a few achievements. And then we had Fourth of July and Bastille Day . . .
With its tickle and sparkle, champagne is such a happy wine. It always seems to add an effervescence to any occasion and has become synonymous with celebrations. So I decided to immerse myself in its history—in moderation, of course!—and discovered some fascinating facts and fun lore.
First things first. There are many sparkling wines produced around the world. However, to be legally labeled champagne, a wine must meet three criteria: It must come from the Champagne region of France; it must be made from pinot noir, pinot meunier or chardonnay grapes grown within the region, and it must undergo two fermentations—one in the barrel, and one in the bottle. All other bubblies must be labeled “methode champenoise.”
Champagne—the name derives from the Latin ‘campus’, or field—is located about 100 miles east of Paris and is characterized by rolling hills, chalky soil, and cool winters. Grapes have been cultivated there since Roman times, and during the Middle Ages, Pope Urban II declared the wines from the region were the best in the world, making them in much demand for religious ceremonies, as well as royal celebrations and coronations.
As the great cathedral at Reims established the city as one of the prominent Church centers in Europe, the surrounding Benedictine monasteries became the leading winemakers in the region. For several centuries they were rivals with Burgundy for bragging rights of ’Best in France.” However, as winemaking skills grew more sophisticated, Burgundy’s climate and soil gave it an edge in making rich, complex wines. So the monks of Champagne got creative. They began experimenting with different techniques, like removing the grape skins from the juice in the early stages of fermentation. This created a lighter wine—up until this time, all wines were red.
The new style attracted much attention. Contemporary accounts waxed poetic over its nuances, giving wonderfully descriptive names to the colors. Some of my favorites include oeil de perdrix (partridge eye), couleur de miel (honey-colored), cerise (cherry pink) and fauve (tawny). These first “white” wines were particularly popular in England, due to the Marquess de Saint-Evremond, a courtier to Louis XIV who had fallen out of favor with the king. Saint-Evremond established himself as the arbiter of taste in London during the 1660s, and as he loved the wines of Champagne, they were soon all the vogue.
There was just one problem. These new, lighter wines had a tendency to develop bubbles–which at first was viewed as a fault. (This had to do with the cool Champagne winters, which stopped the yeast from fermenting in the barrels. Once the weather turned warmer, the fermentation started again, creating carbon dioxide . . . I’m no chemistry expert, but you get the gist.) The English actually liked the sparkly taste, but the Benedictine monks were determined to get rid of the noxious bubbles.
Enter Dom Perignon, who worked very hard at refining the process of his monastery’s winemaking. His tinkerings resulted in smaller, more delicate bubbles, and lo and behold, he actually came to favor the new creation—he is credited with the famous saying, “Come quickly—I think I am drinking the stars!”
Another problem arose when the monks tried to bottle the wines. The pressure of the bubbles tended to explode the thin glass of the bottles, or blow out the hemp stoppers that were used in France to seal the wines. A thicker bottle was developed, and cork from Spain was found to withstand the force of the natural gases. Voila! Champagne was born.
Over the years, other refinements were made to the methods of producing champagne. In the early 1800s, a woman is credited with creating an important innovation in the way champagne is made. Madame Cliquot took over the running of her late husband’s vineyards (Veuve—or widow—Cliquot is still one of the venerable champagne labels available in stores today.) Under her direction, the cellarmasters began rotating the bottles slightly every day in an effort to reduce the build-up of bubbles. This procedure, called "riddling," creates a more delicate, nuanced wine and is still done today by hand by the top champagne houses.
The House of Clicquot also developed the process called "disgorgement." This involves uncorking the wine during the second fermentation to remove the yeast sediment that has settled in the bottles (If left in the wine, it would create an unappetizing cloudy appearance.) The wine is then quickly resealed with a fresh cork before the gases can escape. As you can see, it’s a lengthy labor of love to create champagne, which explains its hefty price tag.
Now, a quick primer on the different types of champagne. A non vintage champagne, the most common type available, is made by blending wines of different years. Each champagne maker has its own “house” style, and its non vintage wines strive to have a consistent taste from year to year.
If the quality of a harvest is considered especially good during a certain year, a champagne house may declare a “vintage” year. This means that only the grapes from that year will be blended to make that bottling. As not every year
yields a “vintage” year, these wines are rarer and more expensive. (So when you see a specific date on a label—for example, Vintage 2009—that is why it costs more.)
And finally, there are the prestige cuvees, which are the “superstars” of a champagne house’s line. For example, Moet & Chandon features Dom Perignon and Roederer showcases Cristal. These wines are usually made from hand-selected grapes picked in the top vineyards and coddled through a longer aging process—anywhere from five to seven years.
The lore surrounding champagne is just as enjoyable as the wine. Here are a few random tidbits that caught my fancy. The coupe, or shallow, saucer-shaped champagne glass, is said to have been modeled on the exact shape of Diane de Poiters’s left breast. (Though some claim it was Madame Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress, or Marie Antoinette.) Whatever the case, experts agree that the wine should never be drunk from a shallow glass, for the bubbles dissipate far too fast. The preferred shape is a flute, and if you own crystal, use it, for the tiny irregularities in the glass are said to prolong the sparkle.
And speaking of crystal, Cristal, the favored libation of today’s glitterati, was created in 1876 by the House of Roederer for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who wanted a wine that the masses were not permitted to buy. He demanded a clear bottle with a flat bottom, so that an assassin could not hide a bomb in the wine. The normal indentation at the bottom of a bottle is there to help distill the pressure, so to make the bottom flat, Roederer had to commission a unique special bottle made of heavy lead crystal, which is still used today.
The rich and famous have always had a taste for champagne. Napoleon was said to be horrified by Josephine’s champagne bills. But then, who was he to talk, seeing as he is reputed to have said, “Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it.” Winston Churchill, another legendary wartime leader, was also a real aficionado of the bubbly and exclaimed to his commanders, “Remember, gentlemen, it's not just France we are fighting for, it's Champagne!" And then there is Mark Twain, who quipped, "Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right."
Which reminds me of my first real experience with champagne. When I was a junior in high school I went on a summer school program to Paris. The parents of one of my fellow students was good friends with the owner of Moet & Chandon, so we were all invited out to the town of Epernay in Champagne to tour the caves and see how the wine was made. Afterward, they treated us to a special tasting of the wine. Needless to say, we sixteen-year-olds were absolutely thrilled at having adults offer us alcohol—legally!—and it was not just a thimbleful. There we were in a historic chateau and the bubbly was flowing. And flowing. We felt very chic and sophisticated . . . and it was a bunch of VERY happy kids who managed to stumble back to the train for the return to Paris. Every time I walk through a wine store I smile when I see a bottle of Moet White Star!
So, do you love champagne as much as I do? And do you only drink for a very special occasion, or do you ever crack open a bottle to lift your spirits and make an ordinary day a real celebration? And have you any special champagne memory to share? To celeberate sharing with us, a winner will be chosen at random to win a copy of my book, Seduced By A Spy.